(Aaron Broverman, walletpop.ca)
Bowmanville was an Ontario community hit hard by the recession. Families there used to make their bones in cars and other heavy industries, but when those opportunities dried up in the town, so did their jobs.
This population of over 4, 300, just an hour outside of Toronto, faced record unemployment and, like the rest of the country, record levels of debt, when a small enterprising group of townsfolk launched a plan to bring season two of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s hit reality show Million Dollar Neighbourhood to Bowmanville. The series sees 100 financially strapped families — last season in Aldergrove, B.C. — band together to take on financial challenges designed to put them back in the black and raise the whole community’s net worth to $1 million. If they manage to pull together and succeed, one family wins $100, 000.
“I knew what the premise of the show was and I knew there were a lot of financial problems in people’s lives, mine especially. I needed to push to do the right things with my business and my personal life,” says Janet Lange, a participant on the show and proprietor of a children’s art business who was part of the committee that brought the show to town.
“I knew that other people are in certain situations where they need help and we needed something for Bowmanville — to inspire, to show people that things can change and you can be who you want to be.”
If there was any night that was going to do that, it would be tonight — the culmination of everything these 100 families had worked all summer for — it was the screening of the last challenge, a tourism commercial for Bowmanville that all of these families worked together to produce. It was to be judged by some local luminaries, including Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster, the interim president and CEO of Ontario Tourism Marketing Corporation, Ronald Holgerson, and Studio 12 news anchor on CHEX Durham, Kate Wheeler.
Yes, the whole thing is a big to-do, with the Bowmanville High School auditorium decked out in lights with a marquee like a real Hollywood movie premiere, complete with paparazzi, a red carpet and an old-time popcorn cart. As the families filed in, completely awestruck by the whole spectacle, many people making their way across that red carpet had no idea that some of their lives would be changed forever this night — people like Julie Cooper.
At around Easter of last year, her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor and three weeks later on April 26, right around the time she heard Million Dollar Neighbourhood was coming to Bowmanville, he passed away.
“I was being left a young widow with a child and $60,000 in debt,” she says. “I was at a loss as to what exactly I was going to do because I was financially crippled. This show just came along at the right time and I would have these great financial experts who would tell me what to do and how to help me.”
Those experts are co-hosts Preet Banerjee, a former financial advisor and now a Globe and Mail personal finance columnist and blogger, and Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist who works with the participating families on their emotional relationship with money.
“The principles of money are very simple,” says Samra. “We all know, ‘Work more, earn more’ and ‘Save more, spend less.’ The principles are very basic, so why do so many people in our society get in debt? It’s because of all the emotional and psychological reasons. Money problems and money difficulties create a lot of stress for all of us. You’re worried about when your next bill is going to be paid, so that can create mood issues, anxiety, worry, fear, insomnia and conflict in families.”
No one was more stressed than Cooper. Her husband died so suddenly that they’d never discussed a will or taken out a life insurance policy. She literally had nothing and she thought that by going on the show, viewers could learn from her mistakes and no one who watched would be quite so unprepared the moment such a tragedy hit their lives, even at such a young age.
“My husband took care of everything for me,” she says. “I didn’t know how to do simple house repairs, how to save money on my electricity bill or how to cut back on groceries. The show taught me so much. I sold my second van because of them and even with my husband’s pension money, they taught me how to take a lump sum from that and pay off my student loans. They taught me how to contribute to RESPs, RRSPs, TFSAs — all of these things I didn’t know about before.”
Plus, should tragedy befall her once again, this time, she’ll be prepared because the show taught her how to, as Preet Banerjee calls it, “disaster proof” her life.
“One of the biggest mistakes so many people make is, they think about their retirement before they think about their present,” says Banerjee.
“This is where ‘disaster proofing’ comes in because your single biggest asset is your ability to earn an income for the rest of your life. A lot of people don’t know that you can protect that with disability insurance. There are actually a few families on the show who are disabled — one family had insurance and the other didn’t. The one who didn’t is essentially poor and it will be very tough to get out of it. The other family who did have it, 80 or 90 per cent of their income has been replaced, so they mitigated that risk, but they didn’t even realize they had it at the time because they got it through work and it wasn’t something they consciously bought.”
However, if you’re going to buy insurance through work, you’re going to need a full-time job, something Julie Cooper didn’t have as she crossed the red carpet into the Bowmanville High School auditorium. But, knowing reality TV, she suspected her fortunes may change.
“The other part of this week’s challenge was employment and small business,” she exclaims. “I’ve been going on a lot of interviews this week, so hopefully I’ll get a job tonight.”
Later that evening, Cooper was beginning to sweat, as she watched woman after woman be called to the stage in typical Oprah Winfrey, “Everybody gets a car!” fashion:
“Marina DiLisi”… “Christine Puma”…Until finally, like something out of The Price is Right, she hears it: “Julie Cooper, come on down!” The crowd erupts, this is her moment — TV gold!
“Julie, the past ten weeks have been quite the journey for you,” begins Joti Samra, “And part of that journey has been to find full-time employment and increased income to create a stable, better life for you and Sam [her child].”
As to how Cooper thought the job search was going up to that point? “I don’t know,” she tells Samra. “I’m still looking. I’ve been on a couple of interviews, so I’m kind of hoping for good news.”
“Well Julie, there’s someone here who would like to follow up on one of your interviews,” announces Banerjee, right on cue. “Please welcome Joanna Severino, the founder and president of PrepSkills.”
With that, Cooper’s life was once again transformed for the better through the magic of Million Dollar Neighbourhood, as PrepSkills — a company providing U.S. college and private school admissions test prep — offered her a full-time job as a teacher.
“I’m debt free now, I have savings, which I’ve never had before, and now I have a job,” says Copper. “So, there’s just been an amazing impact the show has had on me.”
It’s had just as profound an impact on the community as well and all 100 families are supremely confident that they will reach the $1 million net worth goal.
“It’s an amazing idea. It gives me a sense of purpose because it makes my mental health better when I’m helping other people,” says Cooper.”When I’m sad it’s a horrible feeling, but when you are giving somebody a leg up, it makes everybody feel good, so why wouldn’t you want to do that? Together we’re making everybody feel good in this community and everyone’s clearing their debt, everybody is saving money and even if it’s just a little bit better off, they’re better off than they were at the start.”
So, what about the commercial? Was it judged successful? Did they reach the summit of that million dollar mountain? You’re just going to have to watch the show and find out.
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